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The Old Guard: Eternal Life During Wartime [Interview]

Greg Rucka and Leandro Fernández are perfectly suited for each other. You can see it in their work together on THE OLD GUARD.

Rucka's written Batman, Wonder Woman, the Punisher, and the Kingpin in the past. In the creator-owned realm, he's written Forever Carlyle in LAZARUS, Detective Rowan Black in BLACK MAGICK, and Tara Chace in Queen & Country. These characters run the gamut from the utterly fantastic to relatively down-to-earth, but one thing they have in common is their deep-seated humanity. Under Rucka's pen, they have a recognizable humanity, motivations, and feelings that make perfect sense to us, even if we've seen neither hide nor hair of a Batarang or a Lazarus. Rucka's characters are human first, and super-human—or super-spy, or super-strong, and so forth—after, and thanks to that fact, we fall deep into Rucka's stories.

The same is true of Leandro Fernández. You've seen his work on The Punisher, THE DISCIPLINE, Wolverine, and Queen & Country. His characters are complex and beautiful, each in their own way. You can see it in how he draws Frank Castle as an old man hunched under the weight of his eternal war, or in Melissa Peake's face as she flashes from frustration to curiosity to confusion to fear in the pages of THE DISCIPLINE. His characters move about their worlds like real people, and Fernández's keen eye for storytelling ensures that the way they move is not just true to life, but exciting, too. He's got an excellent mixture of cartooniness—knowing when to warp proportions or draw the eye toward a certain aspect of the page or character—and storytelling, going by his choices in depicting everything from architecture to fashion and beyond.

Taken together, Fernández and Rucka create worlds that feel grounded, no matter how outré the subject matter, but fantastic, too, like you're peeking in on another world where everything is much more amped up than it is in our world. The two of them play off each other very well, with Rucka giving us a chance to understand the interior workings of the cast, Fernández showing us the body language, and the end result being a complete picture of the story they're telling.

That's the sign of a great comics-making duo, and they're getting together again for THE OLD GUARD, the story of a troupe of immortal soldiers who've been waging war for millennia in some cases, and mere centuries in others. Nowadays, they take advantage of their immortality to offer their services to whoever can not just pay their rate but find them in the first place, and their eons of combined experience make them some of the deadliest warriors around.

IMAGE COMICS: Greg, who is the central figure in THE OLD GUARD?

GREG RUCKA: We're primarily following Andy—Andromache of Scythia. She leads the team by dint of being the eldest—she's coming up on her sixth millennia—and the wealth of experience that she's amassed in that time. She knows more about fighting than anybody alive, and that's not meant as an exaggeration or a brag. It's simply the fact that she's been doing it for so damn long that there's very little that she hasn't experienced. Add to that the old saw that we learn more through our mistakes than our successes—and that she has a free pass for every fatal mistake she may make—and she's learned an awful lot. Now throw in the fact that she's been all over the world multiple times, so there's hardly a language she can't speak, there's hardly a culture she doesn't have at least some understanding of, if not familiarity with...in a brighter light, she should be a very happy, very fulfilled person.
 
But of course she's not, because she's hardly got a story if she is. She's old, and she's tired, and she's so hard-boiled at this point her yolk has turned green, you know? The thing is, all of the immortals in the series can die...but they don't know when, nor how. It's not like a vampire—stake through the heart, done. Quite literally, the thing that one of them shrugged off yesterday can be the thing that kills that same one today—they have no way of knowing when it'll happen, or why it didn't but this time it did. There's an uncertainty at work.
 
For Andy, this is especially brutal—she's seen friends and lovers, apparently as immortal as she, die over the years. But she keeps going. She keeps going, and she doesn't know why her and not them.
 
And, as I said, she's pretty much cooked. There is, I think, some Douglas Adams inspiration to Andy (as there so often is in much of my work). In Life, The Universe, and Everything, Adams created the character of Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged, "one of the universe's very small number of immortal beings." And he has this lovely description about how those who are born immortal instinctively know how to deal with it, and how Wowbagger had loved being immortal at first, but in the end it began to pale for him, until it was finally "the Sunday afternoons he couldn't cope with." The idea that the repetition is relentless. That there is no point, nor purpose.
 
There's a good bit of Andy in that.
 
IC: Private military companies are a modern phrase for an old idea. What is it about the intersection of immortality and war that captured your imagination?
 
RUCKA: Well, you just said it yourself. The two self-negate, to a certain extent. And who could be a better soldier than one who can't be killed? I suspect you'd find that at the root of a lot of similar stories, though I've always been fascinated by the "ghost stories of war," the legends of platoons and units that never die, of ghost soldiers who rise when needed only to fade away until summoned forth once more.
 
IC: The phrase "and yet cannot seem to fade away" in the solicit copy for THE OLD GUARD feels particularly loaded with meaning. What does melancholia add to immortality in a story like this?
 
RUCKA: You know, I've gone around and around on the title, and I've had some friends tell me they don't actually like it—that the "old" is something of a turn-away for them. But I've always loved the phrase "the old guard," and it seems perfectly appropriate for these people, this band of four-that-becomes-five, the youngest of them over 300 years old now. It's the flip side of what I said above, to have this gift of immortality and yet to use it only to fight, and to fight for whoever will pay the bills. There is something intrinsically sad in that, I think.
 
IC: The story features characters from a span of thousands of years. Greg, how'd you go about picking warriors from that time span? Leandro, how'd you go about designing those characters? Did you want to keep it historically accurate, or did you take artistic liberties?
 
RUCKA: I didn't really pick them so much as they suggested themselves to me, to be frank. Andy came out of research I'd been doing into the Amazons, their possible origins, what was based in fact and what wasn't. I know for Joe and Nicky, I wanted a historical moment that was relevant to some of what we're seeing today, and thus the First Crusade came to mind and the idea of this Christian knight and this Muslim moor at each other’s throats, only to discover that each time they manage to put the other one down, they just got up again. Talk about an object lesson in the futility of war. With Booker, I'd actually imagined him older when I first started writing him, but when I sat down to start issue three, I realized that he needed to be younger, because I wanted to put him in the Grand Armée of Napoleon. A lot of the choices I've been making, honestly, are directly driven by what I think Leo will enjoy drawing, eras I think he'll have fun playing with.
 
LEANDRO FERNÁNDEZ: Yeah, indeed! I enjoy doing that a lot. Not only with the main characters, but the secondary ones, too. For the main characters, I tried to make them very easily recognizable, because they are from different ethnic groups and, as the story takes the readers to different stages in time, scenarios, and situations, we will have to recognize them despite their different hair styles, clothes, mustaches...even different levels of cleanliness or health!
 
I designed Andy thinking of her having a big personality over being beautiful. She has to have her own way of being beautiful, which isn't exactly the easiest way to show a nice woman, for an artist. She has to fit her look with an attitude, and that's what will make her distinctive. The way she interacts with the other characters, for example...everything is a subtle thing. Even if all the members of this bunch of immortals love each other, they don't look into each other's eyes too much, for example...they don't need to. They know the other is there, they've been together for hundreds of years. A relationship like that doesn't need the same confirmation of response any ordinary relationship needs, because as I said...they already know the other is there.
 
The other members were done based on research and looking for specific faces for each character's origin in particular. For example, I specifically designed the French guy, Booker, with [actor] Jean-Paul Belmondo's features as a reference. I didn't mean to draw him exactly. I just wanted to make a sort of reference to a familiar face, since I watched a lot of his movies when I was a kid, and he seemed to have an interesting personality on camera. And the way I draw him isn't as a particularly a nice man. But he is all attitude, of course.

IC: THE OLD GUARD features immortality, which conjures ideas of fantasy, and war, which is decidedly down to earth. Is this a supernatural tale, or one of those that just has one supernatural element?
 
RUCKA: "One of those," nice. Lot of them, are there? I don't know, man, I don't tend to think of the stories I'm writing as one genre or another specifically. That's just never been how I approach the work. I think those are more thematic questions, at least as far as I'm concerned. Certainly, immortality is a fantasy concept, and it's a decided trope, at that—we're not digging a new well here, and I'd never even try to suggest that we are. Nor are we wrestling with the ineffable questions that arise from such a concept—at least, we're not wrestling with them to such an extent that anybody is going to be sitting down to play chess with Death. 
 
There's a decided current of "realism" or, at least, "plausibility" in what we're doing, I think, at least outside of the whole immortality concept. But, if pressed, I'd call this a pulp story more than anything else—it's meant to be a fun action-adventure story, a bit of John Wick crossed with The Bourne Identity, if someone was pressing me for a log-line. So I suppose the short answer is, yes, David, it's the latter—it has a supernatural element, but we're not going to be running into zombies or werewolves, nor is there a BLACK MAGICK crossover in the works. 
 
IC: Leandro, I can tell from the preview and the true-to-life scopes on the guns that you're going for a certain level of realism with the storytelling. What does balancing that realism with the more supernatural aspects of immortality mean for you as a storyteller? Is there a line of "too supernatural" that you don't want to cross?
 
FERNÁNDEZ: I don't know if there's a line like that...I honestly am not aware of it. I have a clear idea of those things I feel my art is well suited to, areas in which I feel more comfortable, and where I could have something to give to the readers.
 
If I find something that I don't think will look good with my art style, I try to take it and twist the storytelling in a way that it looks better, but without changing the meaning of the story. I mean...the writer could ask me to show something, but then if I can use my own resources to get the same effect by showing a different thing, if I think it will look better—I do that all the time. I prefer to drive the story to the side I know I can give something better from me, than to try to force my skills into a field I already know the results won't be the best.
 
I think that working on the storytelling is the duty of the artist, too. An important part of the process. And, after working in comics for so long, I hope I'm experienced enough to know what to draw and what to avoid drawing. Many times, it's just a matter of what to take out than what to put in. Everything should have to work toward what's best for the story. And it's my duty, too, to use the right elements to that.

BONUS! RUCKA & FERNÁNDEZ ON EACH OTHER'S WORK:
RUCKA: I love Leo's line work, I always have. I love the expressiveness of his art and the way in which he seems to combine caricature with a very delicate refinement. His work is decidedly un-American to me, and I think he's at his best when he's drawing outside of the superhero genre, when he's working, quote, realistically, unquote. I think that's only gotten stronger, those elements that—at their extreme—can be viewed as cartoonish have continued to refine and dial in, and what he's achieving now is a beautiful expressiveness with his characters and his storytelling that is wonderfully distinct.
 
At the same time, I think Leo is decidedly a "comic book artist" in that he's entirely capable of going over the top, of creating bombastic, dynamic stagings and scenes that are perfectly suited for the medium. I also have to say that I can't remember having collaborated with any artist who puts as much deliberation and care into the placement of his light sources. Every single panel, every single moment, Leo knows exactly where his illumination is coming from, its source and its strength, and—even ignoring what that does for his own work—what that grants a colorist is incredibly (and consistently) effective.
 
FERNÁNDEZ: From my side, I can mention a lot of reasons why working with Greg is so exciting. Most of them are still the same that I've felt since the first time I had the chance, far back in time with our first book together, and relate to how solid his stories are, the credibility of the way situations are set, the deepness in the development of characters, the reasons behind the geographic placement of the action, and how everything is made to work together in order to have a great story...I just have to follow him on the path he suggests.
 
It's amazing how much he knows about the military, guns, and war technology. He pays big attention to details, and I feel that I learn things related to this subject all the time. Even if I was always aware of something, and I like to draw and give the readers a realistic view of it, I have to keep an eye toward updating my references and sources, the visual documentation I have to gather to be precise with his requests. 
 
For this book, there will be a lot of elements I love to draw. I feel comfortable drawing them, and I think it's set in a field where my work is well suited: different stages in history, different geography, the past and the present times, interesting characters (each one with a personality and a long history), action, guns, war machines, and so on...even the dialog is crafted to be set in cool situations and places. 
 
So, the very structure of this book is tempting to me. It's a big combination of cool elements that make me feel enthusiastic to be onboard, beginning with the fact that Greg is writing it. 
 
I have fun drawing this book.

THE OLD GUARD #1 is available for pre-order now and debuts 2/22.